Graduate Students Win NSF Dissertation Awards

On June 24, 2013 by Grad Forum

Zak Gezon (4th year EEB student) and Robert Schaeffer (5th year EEB student) are recent recipients of NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIG). Both Gezon and Schaeffer work with Dr. Rebecca Irwin in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program. This competitive grant is aimed at providing partial financial support for doctoral candidates in the biological sciences. The grant also provides support for travel to scientific meetings.


Robert Schaeffer bags Delphinium nuttallianum plants to inspect their floral nectar for yeasts.

Schaeffer’s thesis research is focused on investigating “the ecology of floral nectar-inhabiting microorganisms and their potential to mediate plant-pollinator interactions.” Schaeffer remarked that the money from the NSF DDIG award will allow him to examine the effects of microbes on altering pollinator performance and reproduction. He commented that, “as pollinator performance and reproduction can be sensitive to changes in resource quality, the presence of these microbes and their manipulation of nectar may have important consequences.” This work has far extending implications, and will allow a better understanding of how microbes can change species interactions in ecosystems.

Schaeffer has plans to graduate in June of 2014. After completing his PhD at Dartmouth, he hopes to obtain a postdoctoral fellowship where he can continue researching the ecology and evolution of plant-pollinator interactions.


Zak Gezon proudly displays a bumble bee that he caught as part of his research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

Gezon’s thesis research aims to investigate the consequences of global climate change induced earlier flowering seasons of plants. Gezon explains that “the change in phenology, the timing of natural history events like flowering, have been observed to affect plant reproduction. There is some worry that plant reproduction may suffer given climate change because of mismatches in the timing of flowering and the abundance of their pollinators—a so-called ‘phenological mismatch.’ ” Gezon is able to experimentally manipulate phenology by shoveling snow off of the ground (mimicking the melting of snow during spring), which serves to initiate plant flowering. The DDIG award will allow him to investigate similar questions using different techniques. In the grant application, he proposed to control plant flowering times by growing plants in a greenhouse and transplanting them into the field. Gezon remarks that “by comparing the results of the two experiment types, I hope to have a much more clear idea of the mechanisms behind changes in plant reproduction as phenology varies.” This work is critical to understanding how climate change may affect flowering plants and their ecosystem.

Gezon was recently accepted into the 2014-15 NSF GK-12 fellowship, which will fund his sixth year of research. Gezon’s love for both teaching and ecology research has spurred his interest in finding an academic postdoc after graduating. His interest in computer science has given him the idea to create apps that may be used for ecological field research.

We wish both of these talented students luck in their future research endeavors!

by Amanda Balboni

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